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Just how good is Jayson Tatum?

An answer for all of us.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Milwaukee Bucks Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Danny Ainge rolled the dice when he traded away the first overall pick of the NBA draft this summer, opting to pass on top prospect Markelle Fultz. The Celtics moved down to the third spot (landing another future first-round selection in the process) and selected Jayson Tatum, a pick Ainge has since declared he would have made regardless of draft position.

Tatum has made Ainge look like a very smart man to start the year. Boston has only played 14 total games, but he’s been really good in all of them. Here are some per-game numbers to think on (per Basketball Reference; numbers do not reflect Sunday’s game vs. the Raptors).

Jayson Tatum- Rookie statistics as of 11/11/17

Category Rate Rank- Current Peers Rank- Historical Record*
Category Rate Rank- Current Peers Rank- Historical Record*
PTS 13.7 5 178
RBS 5.7 6 294
AST 1.8 9 511
STL 0.7 11 394
BLK 0.8 5 141
FG% 0.500 4 70
3P% 0.500 1 1
FT% 0.827 2 45
USG 18.1 12 460
PER 17.1 4 115
TS% 0.641 3 4
WS/48 0.209 2 9

*Historical record refers to all rookie seasons throughout NBA history.

The sample size in this instance is a bit too small to make many sound conclusions, which is frustrating in that it doesn’t answer our original question but fun in the amount of wiggle room it allows for interpretation. We’ve highlighted three possible perspectives on the matter below.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Optimist

Do you know what Kevin Durant’s shooting splits looked like in his rookie year? A lot worse than Jayson Tatum’s have thus far, that’s for sure. Not to mention the fact that Tatum’s win shares per 48 minutes mark is more than five times better (.209 vs .040).

Durant had a far more substantial role within his team’s offense and nowhere close to the level of talent Tatum has surrounding him, so this comparison isn’t entirely fair, but remember, we’re being intentionally optimistic.

There is a lot to be said for playing on a competent, contending team. Tatum has been developing good habits from day one, and the amount of growth he’s shown from his first summer league performance to the present has been astonishing. If he continues to pick up the game at the pace he has thus far, there isn’t any real reason to think he couldn’t be an All-Star as soon as next year.

If that’s not concrete enough to get you excited, consider this: should his (and the rest of the current rookie class’) statistical output hold, Tatum will be just the 61st rookie ever to average at least 13.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 0.5 steals and 0.5 blocks, and the only rookie in the history of time to reach a 17.0 PER, .640 TS%, .200 WS/48 threshold, with a minimum usage rate of 15.0%.

NBA: Sacramento Kings at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

The Pessimist

Alright. Let’s bring those expectations crashing back down to earth. Tatum probably isn’t even the best rookie in the league right now (props to you Ben Simmons), and his incredible efficiency numbers are directly tied to a hot shooting start and the fact that the Celtics haven’t required him to take on a more significant offensive load.

Tatum is benefiting dearly from his primary function in Boston’s offense, which is to knock down open shots and attack scrambled defenses as a secondary option. It’s a narrow lane that he’s filled well, but it’s unclear if he can handle more substantive creative duties.

He’s struggling to score at the rim (he ranks in the 22nd percentile in FG% per Cleaning the Glass), and the Celtics have actually been 3.1 points per 100 possessions worse with Tatum on the court (per Cleaning the Glass).

The league has had limited time to study Tatum’s game and adapt to his tendencies. As the season rolls on, Tatum’s three-point shooting is likely to regress to the mean, and defenses will begin to figure out how to take away his strengths.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Atlanta Hawks Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Somewhere in Between

I will self-identify as landing in this camp. It’s probably not realistic to think that Tatum will continue to shoot 50.0% from three, but that doesn’t negate how impressive he’s looked to start the year. He’s ranks near the top of so many statistical categories (relative to other rookies) for a reason, and that’s because he’s played exceptionally well.

Tatum has demonstrated a mesmerizing blend of confidence and athletic fluidity. He feels the game like a five-year veteran (not pulling the trigger on that wide-open three-point look in OKC notwithstanding), and he’s getting the job done on both ends of the court, despite the ever-evolving, injury-ravaged context that surrounds him.

All that to say that there is good reason to be excited about Tatum, but it might be wise to temper that excitement a bit. He isn’t a superstar in the present, and it’s not fair to expect him to grow into one in the future. Tatum is only 19 years old, and he deserves some time before we declare who he is as a professional basketball player. Things couldn’t be off to a much better start.

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